Breaking the Belly Barrier: The Preoccupation With the Perfect Pregnant Body

It's great that women feel more comfortable documenting their pregnancies. For my generation, photographic evidence of our pregnant mothers were relegated to a snap from a baby shower or candid at a picnic. Then again, those photos ended up in albums, not splashed across websites.
11/30/2012 01:22 pm ET Updated Jan 30, 2013
PASADENA, CA - JANUARY 06:  Singer Jessica Simpson arrives to the NBC Universal 2012 Winter TCA Tour All-Star Party on Januar
PASADENA, CA - JANUARY 06: Singer Jessica Simpson arrives to the NBC Universal 2012 Winter TCA Tour All-Star Party on January 6, 2012 in Pasadena, California. (Photo by Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images)

Rumors swirled this week about the suspected, but likely soon-to-be-officially-confirmed, second pregnancy of pop star Jessica Simpson. ABC News blogger Luchina Fisher encapsulates the skewed cultural mindset when it comes to women and body image when she writes: "Jessica Simpson could be gaining back some of the 60-plus pounds she lost after giving birth to daughter Maxwell Drew in May."

Fisher skips a chirpier, pop media approach to the story that might offer tentative congratulations for Simpson and her fiancᅢᄅ, Eric Johnson, or make some other kind of cutesy remark about Simpson, who also has a clothing line, "designing for two." Instead, Fisher cuts right to the proverbial chase by zeroing in on Simpson's body. During her first pregnancy, Simpson's weight fluctuation became typical tabloid fodder. Her subsequent campaign to lose the weight by becoming a spokesperson for Weight Watchers garnered equal attention, a tacit nod that Fisher makes in leading her piece with a statement about Simpson's body rather than her alleged pregnancy. The preoccupation with women's pregnant bodies has reached new highs causing us to stoop, as Fisher illustrates, to new lows as we widen our cultural obsession with physical ideals to include pregnancy.

Demi Moore was one of the first women to break the "belly barrier" when she posed naked and pregnant for the cover of Vanity Fair in 1991. Since that time, other celebrities (including Jessica Simpson) have followed suit, or rather birthday suit: Britney Spears, Christiana Aguilera and supermodels Miranda Kerr, Cindy Crawford and Claudia Schiffer. These images provoke responses that range from disgust over the public display of a private issue to praise for these women proudly exposing their pregnant bodies and helping to overturn notions that pregnancy somehow distorts women's bodies in a way socially viewed as negative. These daring representations also raise concerns about the emphasis placed on the bodies of these women rather than their overall health or well-being. In the light of the photo shoot, in the airbrushed pixels of the computer proofs, the pregnant body shifts from a functional, organic entity to a glammed-up, commodified extension of the woman's idealized self-image.

For civilian women (i.e. the non-celeb sect), the pressure to capture every moment of your pregnancy is registered through an uptick in professional pregnancy photographs, pregnancy time-capture videos posted to YouTube and on social media sites such as Pinterest. The home photo front enables women to demonstrate a large amount of creativity in the way they showcase their bodies: Women with a 'Hello My Name Is' badge taped across her navel, women lying in fields or beneath trees with their rounded bellies exposed and pregnant women swimming or submerged in soapy baths. A subgenre of "crazy" and "awkward" pregnancy photos reveals women posing pregnant with firearms, with their bellies ornately painted as if they were sports super fans and even perched on horseback, mostly naked except for some strategically placed, flowing white material.

The desirable pregnant body is more than the vehicle for a new life, it is the vehicle for the ideal woman: playful, graceful, dreamy, seemingly uninhibited by the way she lounges among the bugs and dirt in a wild, English garden, seemingly unencumbered by the extra 8 pounds forever pressing on her bladder. It is a highly contrived capture of a, presumably, joyful moment in the woman's life, yet the cultural weight these images accrue surpass their status as mere artifacts to become bench markers of an envisioned mommyhood that will never live up to the realities of new mothering.

That women feel more comfortable expressing and documenting their experience of pregnancy is a good thing. Among friends my age, the photographic evidence of our pregnant mothers are few and far between, typically relegated to the requisite snap from a baby shower or candid shot at a neighborhood picnic. Then again, those photographs ended up in albums, not splashed across websites fired up around the world. And the purview of contemporary women reared on mobile media encourages a freeness about seeing and being seen that our mothers can only observe and shake their heads at. This does not account for the relentless preoccupation with women's bodies, especially ones that bear the mark of difference in some way, or excuse the disconcerting messages to women about the right and wrong way to be in their pregnant bodies. That is why the scrutiny on Jessica Simpson's barely pregnant body and its impact on her career as a Weight Watcher's spokeswoman is so disheartening. The media has already proscribed a pregnancy journey for Jessica Simpson where the presentation, display, marketability of her body and attendant assessments about that body takes precedence over the life growing inside.